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An Engineer’s Dreams of Space—Gou Chongsin Boosts Taiwanese Rocketry

A rocket is an almost unbelievably complex device that incorporates knowledge from every field of engineering.

A rocket is an almost unbelievably complex device that incorporates knowledge from every field of engineering.

 

Rocket engineer Gou Chongsin is so well known in Taiwan that the band Mayday wrote the song “Tough” about him. Taiwan’s dreams of space took flight in 2010 when his Advanced Rocket Research Center carried out Taiwanese academia’s first test launch of a hybrid-propellant rocket, the HTTP-1.

 

“Young grandpa” Gou Chongsin is committed to getting into space, and is developing rockets that Taiwan will produce itself. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)“Young grandpa” Gou Chongsin is committed to getting into space, and is developing rockets that Taiwan will produce itself. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

More than 400 people gathered near Hsinchu’s Xiangshan Wetlands in early December 2018 to watch the Advanced Rocket Research Center (ARRC) test one of its rockets. Much to ARRC’s surprise, another 3,000-plus people watched the event live online, and a further 70-80,000 streamed replays of the launch over the next eight hours.

Seeing the orange rocket fire its engines and shoot straight into the sky trailing a plume of white smoke was an emotional moment for ARRC’s Gou Chongsin, who remarked: “When you see a Taiwan-made rocket take flight, you become Taiwanese.” Gou explains that ARRC isn’t developing rockets to write research papers and advance academic careers, but out of a sense of patri­otic duty.

Launching for Taiwan

Gou’s life has followed a trajectory similar to that of many other people working in high tech. He did well in school as a child, earned a master’s degree from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at National Taiwan University, and then went on to obtain a PhD in aerospace engineering in the United States. While in the US, he became friends with other students who shared a “Taiwanese” consciousness and were resolved to put their degrees to work for Taiwan if the opportunity arose.

They got their opportunity many years later. When Taiwan’s government initiated a micro-satellite program, Gou and Academia Sinica academician Lin Ming-chang asked Chen Yen-sen, who was then working in the US, to come back to Taiwan to run it. Gou then also joined the project. When the program was abruptly terminated, Gou and his old friends realized they had the expertise to build a rocket themselves. “We would have been ashamed of ourselves if we hadn’t,” jokes Gou. He, National Taipei University of Technology’s Lin Hsin-piao, National Chiao Tung University’s Chen Tsung-lin, National Cheng Kung University’s Ho Ming-tzu, National Pingtung University of Science and Technology’s Hu Hui-wen, and their students began working on the project, and formed ARRC at NCTU in 2012 following an injection of private capital.

At TEDxTaipei, Gou used Taiwanese to explain rocket thrust and the future space economy. (courtesy of Gou Chongsin)At TEDxTaipei, Gou used Taiwanese to explain rocket thrust and the future space economy. (courtesy of Gou Chongsin)

In 2015, Lin Tahan, CEO of the crowdfunding consultancy Backer-Founder, helped ARRC undertake a public offering. During the run-up to the offering, Gou traveled the length of Taiwan giving presentations, speaking about ARRC’s team, how rockets are built and generate thrust, and future applications for ARRC’s rockets. He ignited Taiwanese enthusiasm for rocketry, showed us a route to a universe we had never imagined, and dared us to dream of space. Gou also gave a TEDxTaipei talk at which he described rocket thrust and the future space economy in a homey-feeling Taiwanese interspersed with English. Even knowing that his talk would get more views on YouTube if he delivered it in Mandarin, Gou chose to speak in his native Taiwanese, becoming the first TEDxTaipei presenter to deliver a talk on technology in Taiwanese.

Getting to space

A rocket’s systems are extremely complicated, and challenge a nation’s design and manufacturing capabilities. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)A rocket’s systems are extremely complicated, and challenge a nation’s design and manufacturing capabilities. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

“We will never give up. We’re going to leave the Earth!” Gou’s conclusion to his TEDxTaipei talk sounds simultaneously comical and determined.

But why should Taiwan make rockets itself? As ARRC wrote on its fundraising website: “The OEM industrial model has long bound Taiwan’s technology research professionals to a specific spot in the industrial chain, which has wasted immeasurable amounts of creative capacity. If so-called research and development is limited to refining other people’s systems, and the endless pursuit of higher efficiency and lower cost, where will that leave our industrial sector in the future?”

A rocket is an almost unbelievably complex device that incorporates knowledge from every field of engineering. Wu argues that a country’s strength depends on its ability to design and manufacture complicated systems, and that if Taiwan wants to escape its OEM rut, launch-vehicle R&D can provide it with a very advantageous niche. But rocket building is no simple matter. “A large rocket can contain more than one kilometer of circuitry and more than 1,500 connections. The flight software controlling it must also manage large challenges like its passage through the stratosphere, where wind gusts can blow harder than a super typhoon and reach 60-70 meters per second.”

ARRC has developed two rockets so far. The APPL is a small rocket used used as a verification platform for larger hybrid-propellant rockets. It is fueled in part by a solid propellant made from sorbitol, potassium nitrate, and iron oxide. The HTTP, which is named with the initials of the locations of the four universities involved with ARRC, is a hybrid-propellant rocket, which offers safety and cost advantages.

The ARRC team prepares to launch the HTTP-3S.The ARRC team prepares to launch the HTTP-3S.

Rocket building requires integrating professionals with different areas of expertise, which has allowed Gou to draw on the team-building skills he learned playing rugby as a student. Gou plays the role of mediator and coordinator on the rocketry team, which he “herded together” to enable Taiwan to do things it hadn’t done before. As he puts it: “When you can’t manage it on your own, you get a group to do it together.”

The company’s goal for its first difficult decade is to create a rocket that can put a satellite into orbit, so that Taiwan will have autonomous launch capabilities. Right now, only nine or ten countries and regions possess the capability to send satellites into orbit on their own rockets. Given that technological progress has resulted in smaller and smaller satellites, and that low-orbit and super-low-orbit satellites are being developed, ARRC believes that the hybrid-propellant rockets of the type it is working on are very likely to become mainstream and highly marketable. As an additional bonus, Taiwan’s rocket R&D should spawn wide-ranging derivative applications that will help lead Taiwanese industry into the future.

ARRC has struggled at times with its R&D, but by pulling together with a common purpose, the team is making it possible for a Taiwanese rocket to escape the Earth’s gravity.ARRC has struggled at times with its R&D, but by pulling together with a common purpose, the team is making it possible for a Taiwanese rocket to escape the Earth’s gravity.

A stint in industry

Gou’s career changed course in 2015. Even though ARRC had successfully launched the HTTP-3S, a 6.3-meter-tall, 40-centimeter-diameter, 320-kilogram rocket in 2014, it was on the verge of losing students who had been on the team for more than ten years to graduation and the job market. Gou was concerned that Taiwan’s lack of a rocket industry would result in these students going to work in other fields, and that their skills would not be passed on. Believing that ARRC’s work was pointless unless it could be commercialized, Gou decided to look for opportunities in the business world himself.

Before stepping outside of academia, he harbored doubts as to whether Taiwan had the capability to build a rocket itself. But now, with more than two years of private-sector experience under his belt, he brims with confidence. “Many of Taiwan’s technologies are hidden away. The situation really is like that ‘hidden champions’ thing you used to hear about. Nowadays, I’m 100% certain that Taiwan has the industrial foundation to support our construction of satellite platforms.”

A rocket shoots into the sky. Gou says, “Once you see a Taiwan-made rocket take flight, you immediately become 100% Taiwanese.”A rocket shoots into the sky. Gou says, “Once you see a Taiwan-made rocket take flight, you immediately become 100% Taiwanese.”

Gou returned to NCTU at the end of May 2018, and says that the move was both the right way and wrong way forward. On the plus side, he now knows what it’s like to work in industry. He has trained a group of seasoned engineers, come to know the dark side of the private sector, learned how to manage, and begun thinking about his own future business model. “I know how to do it, so I’ll build the foundation at the university, make a prototype, and wait for the resources to come in. It should be doable in two or three years.”

A black hole

Early one morning, the lab staff check over their launch equipment, then drive it along a rugged mountain road to a deserted test site near Hsinchu County’s Baoshan Reservoir.

The team recovers the wreckage of a failed launch in hopes of learning from their failure and applying those lessons to their next attempt. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)The team recovers the wreckage of a failed launch in hopes of learning from their failure and applying those lessons to their next attempt. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Led by PhD student Wei Shih-sin the test team assembles the components, mounts the engine, and ignites the trigger. Their first test is of a solid-propellant thruster. Research assistant Zhang Yuwei explains that they are testing the configuration of the fuel inside the engine to find the one that yields the largest combustion area.

The second test involves a hybrid-propellant engine, which is much more complex and takes nearly an hour to put together. When a component fails during assembly, the team spends a long time getting the test back on track. With each step and screw being vital, there is no room for carelessness.

Gou has been working with the lab staff for years, and he feels like he’s watched them grow up. The maturation of the romantic Wei Shih-sin into a conscientious project manager is a case in point. When Gou moved to the private sector, Wei set aside his work on his nearly complete PhD to go with him. He picked up his graduate work again three years later. “I’ve spent a third of my life making rockets.” He says he thought about looking for work in the Hsinchu Science Park, but decided that “playing with rockets was more fun.”

The ARRC team uses passion to fuel its dreams of sending Taiwanese rockets into space.The ARRC team uses passion to fuel its dreams of sending Taiwanese rockets into space.

When we ask Gou how much force it takes to leave the Earth, he responds with a very scientific: “The escape velocity from Earth is 11 kilometers per second, while the velocity needed to achieve orbit around the Earth is a minimum of 7.8 km per second. It takes 25 gigajoules of energy to send one kilogram into orbit.” His explanation went right over the heads of those of us with backgrounds in the humanities, but ARRC personnel have immersed themselves in these numbers and calculations for the last decade, running innumerable tests and experiments aimed at reaching the edge of space, 100 km above the Earth’s surface. “I wouldn’t dare call myself a role model. But for all that I’m practically a grandfather, I’m still pursuing this. What are some people doing talking about giving up? I’m already an old geezer and I’m still going!”

When Gou gave his TED talk, he quoted John Lennon: “A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.” I’d like to thank ARRC for sharing its dream with Taiwan, and giving us the courage to dream, to imagine that space isn’t really that far away, and to reach for the heavens.